Archive for March, 2013

Moving the ball forward

Saturday, March 23rd, 2013

Last week I spent two days in a corporate leadership class. Two weeks ago I started taking a MOOC. I recently added several “scientific” Tweeters (Twitterers?) to the list of people I follow. In the middle of an internet search a few days ago, I was once again stricken by the sheer volume of information available to a curious person – magazines, books, blogs, postings, videos, music. It’s like walking into a library and discovering that the bookshelves are infinitely long; fortunately the librarian knows where everything is, if you can just figure out how to properly describe what you are looking for.

The preceding observations are all related. At least, they are related in my mind, and in this posting.

The new Tweeters I am following are a tiny example of the ocean of information available. The Physics ArXiv, the Science Goddess, the Science Comedian, and the Scientific American blog editor are just a few examples of the infinite bookshelves I’ve wandered among lately. This morning I read about a newly-found whalefall – a location on the ocean floor where a deceased whale has sunk to the bottom, and slowly returned to its constituent elements, thanks to the diligent work of all sorts of underwater organisms.

You would think that, as many whales as there are, finding whalefalls would be common. But the earth’s oceans cover a lot of, er, ground. This was only the sixth documented whalefall to be found, and the first in Antarctica.

A MOOC is a Massive Open On-line Course, a relatively new thing in the remote/distant learning space. Unlike, for example, the truly “riveting” TED talks, which only require a commitment of 3 to 18 minutes, a MOOC is more like taking a college course. The one I am participating in is on innovation, taught by a professor from Vanderbilt. It runs for 10 weeks, with a 4-6 hour-per-week time commitment. Class activities include watching video lectures, posting to the class blog, writing (and grading) short essays, and reading assigned articles and excerpts. So far it has been a ton o’ fun, seriously.

A key question for consideration is how to go about allocating resources. All of our personal resources – strength, knowledge, skill, energy, money, time – are, ultimately, finite. In many cases, we can make trade-offs: my MOOC is a way for me to exchange time for knowledge and skill; I swap money for food, which provides strength and energy.

Two of these are carefully metered in our culture. The sum total of your financial resources is calculable. And your time is also measured. You have 1,440 minutes per day, which is 168 hours per week. If you work 40 hours a week (how quaint), and sleep 56 (I wish), that only leaves you 10.2 discretionary hours per day for all of your other activities, including eating, driving, shopping, reading, surfing (literal or figurative) and communicating with others.

As strange as it may seem for such a Peculiar Person, I find corporate classes to be enjoyable and useful. The massive company I work for recognizes their importance, and expends significant resources to make them so. In addition to free food, they often provide encouragement in areas I too rarely think about, such as setting goals and establishing priorities.

One of my wise Thursday morning breakfast buddies is full of pithy sayings. When something he does at work results in progress, even though he might not get the credit he deserves, he demurs, saying, “Just as long as we’re moving the ball forward.”

Of course, to know which direction “forward” is, you must know your goals. With a knowledge of your goals, you can then establish priorities for the use of your resources. And move the ball forward.

Often I will follow an interesting-looking path, only to realize that it is not really moving the ball forward. Let me insert here that not all of your activities must be serious – trading some of your time resources for rest, amusement, creativity, and entertainment can be critical to building strength, skill, and knowledge, for example.

But by knowing your goals and priorities, hopefully you can tell the difference between productive activities, and those which move you (and the ball) in the wrong direction.

I’ll end this posting with a couple of questions for you. I’ll even “bulletize” and embolden them, so you’ll know they are Important:

  • Do you really know what your goals are?
  • Do your choices reflect your priorities?

Extra credit considerations for the reader: How much of my time-resource do you think I spent on this posting? What do you think I got in return?

Postscript: If you feel like I am aiming these words specifically to you, perhaps you should pursue that line of thought a little further. But I am not. The primary intended recipient for this post is Yours Truly.